In November 2012, The American Mathematical Society honored 1119 mathematicians in their first class of Fellows. Three FSU math department professors John Bryant, Robert Gilmer, and DeWitt Sumners numbered among them. Looking back on their long careers and substantial contributions to the field, they've been kind enough to offer their reflections and advice on the field of mathematics, at FSU and beyond.
Regarding the new AMS program, Dr. Bryant explained, "As an AMS officer, I was in favor of the program." He was able to contribute to the process and criteria for the honor, and called the Fellows program an "opportunity for our department to get international recognition, an opportunity they didn't have before," as well as "a way to highlight faculty." Meanwhile, Dr. Sumners said, "I was surprised and pleased. It is a big honor to be recognized by your peers, other mathematicians." Dr. Gilmer, retired for ten years, remarked "It was very gratifying ... to have the contribution you've made to the subject recognized. And when you look at the group, it's humbling." Indeed, the AMS Fellows, including mathematicians from more than 600 institutions, is humbling bunch.
While it is clear that these three professors have accomplished multiple successes in teaching and research, each of them reflected on specific achievements they consider their greatest contributions to the field. Dr. Sumners spoke of his "shift from pure mathematics to applications of mathematics in biology. Lots of scientists are interested in looking at mathematics to elucidate what's happening in the cell...the mathematicians are interested as well." Dr. Bryant mentioned his work with colleagues, citing "The paper I wrote with Dr. Mio and two others, Topology of the Homology Manifolds, published in Annals of Mathematics. That solved a problem that had been circulating for about 20 years...in a way that people didn't expect." Finally, Dr. Gilmer talked about both his teaching and research success. He remembered his first group of "motivated, talented" PhD students, all of whom went on to contribute significantly to the field, saying "I feel that I was influential in that." As far as his research pursuits, he identified his book, Multiplicative Ideal Theory, adding "It was basically the first book that gave a comprehensive treatment of the subject. It stimulated a lot of research in the area."
As these prestigious men look back on their work, they also had much to say about the future of the math department at FSU, the direction of the field, and advice for burgeoning mathematicians. Dr. Gilmer praised the department's diversity "in terms of gender and race, but also in terms of the interests of the department", comparing his early years at FSU, when the focus was on pure and applied mathematics, to the current offerings in four areas. Dr. Bryant and Dr. Sumners made a point of highlighting the departmental support they'd received throughout their research endeavors. Dr. Bryant remembered "being allowed to travel, to take sabbatical... I always felt appreciated," while Dr. Sumners remains excited about the Biomedical Mathematics degree program.
Perhaps most powerful were the words of advice each Fellow had for the next generation of mathematicians. From Dr. Sumners: "Pursue you own interests. Keep apprised of what's happening in the world. Talk to a lot of people. Look at lots of opportunities." Dr. Gilmer offered: "Two-thirds to three-fourths of what you do goes in the wastebasket. It's important to find out what doesn't work because it gets you to the path of what DOES work. Be tenacious, willing to work hard." Dr. Bryant added: "To be successful at mathematics, keep an interest in it. It's a creative process. You have to want to do it."
But all three agreed on this: You have to love what you do.